“BLAZING STAR: THE LIFE & TIMES OF JOHN WILMOT, 2ND EARL OF ROCHESTER” BY ALEXANDER LARMAN
The fiercely promiscuous poet and Restoration Dandy of the 17th century, John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, is brought to life in Alexander Larman’s colorful and comprehensive biography, “Blazing Star: The Life & Times of John Wilmot”. In his debut book, Larman highlights not only Wilmot’s salaciousness – a man who died of Syphilis at 33 and had ‘swived more whores more ways than Sodom’s walls e’er knew’ –but the remarkable talent of a complex man in an age of great literary achievement.
What inspired you to write “Blazing Star: The Life & Times of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester”?
AL: “I always wanted to read a really gripping biography of Rochester, and couldn’t find one anywhere. There’s a relatively famous one by Graham Greene that was written in the 20s and published in the 70s, Lord Rochester’s Monkey, but it’s very out of date in the sources that it uses, and it’s inaccurate in many of its assumptions. Most of the ones since then have either been academic in their focus or just fairly boring, and I thought Rochester deserved better. I started thinking seriously about the book in 2008, and did some preliminary research, but my initial ideas were quite wild, so it wasn’t until 2011 that I came up with a more measured approach. Blazing Star is, I can honestly say, the Rochester biography I wanted to read. I hope others agree.”
Did you think the film, “The Libertine” accurately represented the salaciousness of John Wilmot?
AL: “No, not really. I felt that it suffered from a poor script and direction, and its focus was all too skewed to the idea of Rochester as an alcoholic, syphilis sufferer and sex fiend – not that he wasn’t these things, but it just ended up being very reductive and quite boring. One of its biggest problems was that it didn’t convey his wit or decency, and I still think that there’s a better film to be made about his life. Shame, as Johnny Depp’s pretty decent in the lead role.”
What drew you to Wilmot’s poetry?
AL: “I first got into Rochester when I was a student. It was a complete breath of fresh air to find a poet who was entirely accessible and even – that rarest of rare things- funny. And then I started looking beyond the set-piece and smutty poems, and found this amazing and very underrated canon of work – everything from hilarious social satires to deeply touching love sonnets via intricately argued and intellectually challenging philosophical works. I always say that he’s somewhere halfway between Donne and Larkin, but this almost does it a disservice.”
What was most surprising about John Wilmot as discovered during your research?
AL: “Rochester is a slippery customer, and one of the challenges – and pleasures – of the research was debunking many of the myths about him. There was a tradition, both in his own time and afterwards, of ascribing a lot of hoary old wives’ tales (a lot of which probably existed before he was ever born) to ‘the wicked Rochester’, which has led to him being much maligned for things he never did or said. The same thing goes for the poetry – there has been an awful lot of very mediocre erotic verse that’s said to be by him, presumably because few people would believe it wasn’t. I’ve tried to remedy this throughout the book.”
What attribute of John Wilmot do you most relate to?
AL: “To be honest, it’s not the debauchery that interests me about Rochester, so much as his refusal to believe all the hypocrisies that he was surrounded by. We live in an age where falsehoods and half-truths and exaggerations are broadcast in seconds on social media, which isn’t so very different from the 17th century court, where gossip would fly around the court and streets and make or break reputations in seconds. I try my hardest to reject this, and I think that Rochester’s example is a remarkable and stirring one.”
Being both a debaucherous Libertine and a remarkable poet -someone who simultaneously embraced and disregarded moral and cultural norms of the time- would you consider John Wilmot more virtuous or more of a philistine in his approach to life?
AL: “He certainly wasn’t virtuous, but then he approached life as a grand adventure to be lived to the full, rather than a miserable journey that had to be completed as quickly and quietly as possible. He definitely didn’t like the world that he lived in, but on the other hand he wouldn’t have thrived if he’d been born 20 years before – he’d have died in the Civil War or would have been imprisoned or executed in the Commonwealth.”
When were you first introduced to John Wilmot?
AL: “I first became aware of him when I was at school, because all the four-letter words seemed very shocking. Then I forgot about him for a few years until I arrived at university, and his poem ‘A Satire Against Reason and Mankind’ was compulsory first-year study. I remember thinking it was incredible – and so much more than just the ‘smutty poet’ stuff I’d read before.”
What fascinated you to the Libertine movement?
AL: “A libertine is literally ‘one who defies behaviour that’s accepted by the world around them’, and certainly anyone who wants to write for a living is doing something that goes against society. There’s a deliberate perversity to wanting to spend your life chronicling the tales of people and their times – real and imaginary – and it’s no coincidence that most libertines are creative people.”
Do you think the band “The Libertines” brought light to an era that its fans might otherwise not have known about?
AL: “I have to say probably not – while Pete Doherty is a libertine, I’m not sure that Carl Barat or his other bandmates are much more than competent musicians. Which might be a good thing…Doherty depresses me a bit because he talks a very good game about Albion and reaching a higher state of artistic awareness, and then his music’s largely dreadful and he’s fairly charmless. I think that there are far better libertine musicians out there – Bowie, Nick Cave (who namechecked Rochester in ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’), Neil Hannon, Bryan Ferry…and of course you can have female libertines as well, so someone like Miley Cyrus is an interesting one to watch. Amy Winehouse was, but then unfortunately she left before her time – like Rochester.”
Last but not least, do you have any tips you've learned on the way for the aspiring writer?
AL: “Don’t give up, first of all. Nobody gets to write the book that they wanted to straight away. My first conception of a Rochester biography was a weird, discursive thing that would have included fiction, autobiography, mock-interview material and so on. It might have been fascinating (or might not), but it was also unsellable, and so I didn’t seriously reconsider the book for years. Secondly, decide whether you want to write fiction or non-fiction. It’s perfectly possible to move between the two, but one tends to be more associated with one or the other. Thirdly, never underestimate how important advice from people can be, whether it’s literary agents, publishers, critics or just people who read a lot. Writing isn’t an exact science, but it’s also a business, and in order to get anywhere in it, you have to have a very good idea of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And finally, don’t be cowed by the number of books that are on sale in shops. Everyone had to start from somewhere, and there’s no reason why you can’t write something that’s both a deeply personal and heartfelt book and can connect to a wide commercial audience.”
Larman has written extensively about literature and the arts for publications including the Guardian, New Statesman, The Spectator, the Daily Telegraph, the Erotic Review and the Observer, and also has written a radio play, Jack and Archie, about the relationship between C.S. Lewis and John Betjeman. He also assisted with the editing of another great London libertine's book, Sebastian Horsley's best-selling memoir Dandy In The Underworld. Blazing Star represents the culmination of over a decade's fascination with and research into the life, art and times of Lord Rochester.
“Blazing Star: The Life & Times of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester” is available for purchase at The Society Club.